Dennis Cozzalio at the critically-acclaimed Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog has put up another one of his brain-bending movie quizzes, and believe you me, I was just as surprised as you’ll be to hear that I actually sat down and answered the questionnaire to the best of my ability. (In the past, I’ve been thrown by questions that are designed to generate a lot of rumination…but this time I figured I’d adopt a Governor Gidget defense and just not answer those, you betcha.)
One of the questions on Dennis’ “test” reads like this: “Holiday movies—Do you like them naughty or nice?” My response was “nice,” seeing as how most of my favorite Yuletide-themed films bring out the rank sentimentalist in me. I’m not saying that I can’t enjoy holiday films with a little roughage; there’s something about movies like The Ref (1994) and Bad Santa (2003) that appeal to my cynical side, sure—but rarely do I watch these movies during the holidays. They play better (to me, anyway) outside the season.
Bill at Piddleville raises the issue of Christmas movies in this post, even listing some of his favorites which jibe with mine—but he argues that films like Die Hard (1988) and Lethal Weapon (1987) should not be included because of their lack of sentiment. I think both movies do have sentiment—otherwise why would I start crying the moment they start? (For a dissenting opinion, Vince Keenan embraces both movies, as well as stirring seasonal favorites like The Ice Harvest, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight. I will admit that I wasn’t aware of the Christmassy goodness of Blast of Silence…but that’s only because I’ve not gotten around to opening and watching my copy yet.) Okay, I might be joking here a bit—but my criteria for holiday films is fairly loose; if the movie’s proceedings involve Christmas at some point, it can be considered a Christmas film. For example (using Bill’s list): The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) features a Christmas celebration even though it’s only one specific part of the film’s entire plot—but since no one has ever sang Adeste Fideles like the Old Groaner himself, as far as I’m concerned it’s a Christmas movie (one that I revisited last Saturday, as a matter of fact). The same goes for that other Der Bingle Yuletide classic, Holiday Inn (1942).
Over at Mondo 70: A Wide World of Cinema (a new addition to TDOY’s blogroll, I might add), “Uncle” Samuel Wilson has a list of his five holiday favorites, which include traditional classics like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and eclectic mavericks like Batman Returns (1992). He also lists Holiday Affair (1949)—which I watched in its entirety for the first time this year—and one that I caught on TCM Monday, 3 Godfathers (1948). I’ve been a fan of Godfathers for many years now, and when it’s showing I’ll usually be in sitting in front of it; it’s based on the famous story by Peter B. Kyne and was filmed in at least three silent versions and countless sound versions after that. The 1948 version was directed by John Ford and stars John Wayne, Pedro Armendáriz and Harry Carey, Jr. as three bank robbers stranded in the desert after a holdup; while looking for water, they find a stranded woman (Mildred Natwick) in a covered wagon and pledge to look after her newborn son—earning a great deal of redemption in the process. For sheer breathtaking cinematography (Winton C. Hoch, back in Monument Valley again) Ford’s Godfathers is hard to beat—plus his “stock company” really delivers the goods: Ward Bond, Mae Marsh, Jane Darwell, Guy Kibbee, Dorothy Ford, Ben Johnson, Charles Halton, Hank Worden and brother Francis Ford. Godfathers features one of my favorite Ward Bond performances; he abandons his usual bluster to play a character who has a bit more on the uptake than the average lawman…and I love how he doesn’t even mind when Wayne lays into him about his nick and surnames (“Pearly” Sweet). (He does get the last laugh when he learns that the Duke’s character’s middle name is “Marmaduke.”)
Two days later, TCM ran the previous version, Three Godfathers (1936)…which I also watched for the first time (I had only seen Ford’s take and the 1929 William Wyler adaptation, Hell’s Heroes) and I have to say, in many ways it impressed me more than Ford’s picture. In the 1936 version (directed by Richard Boleslawski), the bandits are played by Chester Morris, Lewis Stone (and it’s not easy picturing Judge Hardy as a cowboy) and Walter Brennan. (There’s a fourth member of this posse in Joseph Marievsky—but he doesn’t get much screen time, and pretty much draws his rations before the others can ride out of town.) Boleslawski’s version is much more grittier than Ford’s (though Heroes is by far the roughest of them all) and I think the acting talent lined up here is first-rate, particularly Stone as the philosophical “Doc” and Brennan as the half-witted “Gus.” (I also enjoy Boleslawski’s incredible use of close-ups.) An eclectic bunch of character actors were assembled for the supporting roles including Irene Hervey, Sidney Toler (Charlie Chan as a huckster dentist), Dorothy Tree, Roger Imhof, Willard Robertson and Robert Livingston, to name a few.
So all this Christmas movie watching got me to thinking…what are my top ten seasonal cinematic favorites?
10) The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) – Okay, this might be cheating a tad because the season doesn’t really show its face until the end of the picture. But hey…there’s decoration of a tree, so it counts. Of course, I don’t restrict watching this Sturges classic just during the holidays; it’s fine for any time of the year.
9) The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) – I think this is a rare example of a sequel that’s actually better than the original (Going My Way). Part of the reason I love this movie so much is that Ingrid Bergman is the sexiest nun to come along until Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus (1947) and bumbling Henry Travers is not a goody-goody angel but a greedy, grasping capitalist porker who wants to throw Ingrid and her fellow sisters out on the street. (Oh, and when Bing adds “Won’t you ring dem bells” to the nuns’ choir number…beautiful!)
8) Scrooged (1988) – Don’t even begin to try and analyze why I enjoy this movie so because I’ve been doing it for twenty years and still haven’t come up with an answer. The most unlikely Ebenezer Scrooge is played by Bill Murray as a TV executive who, in true Dickensian fashion, must be shown the error of his ways. Murray actually does a bang-up job blending comedy and tragedy in this one (though he sort of blows it in the end with the “breaking the fourth wall” bit) but overall the gags and jokes are pretty funny (particularly the "Lee Majors saves Christmas" special).
7) Stalag 17 (1953) – Again, a movie that can be enjoyed any time of the year—but the poignant celebration of Christmas by the movie’s POW’s really hits me where I live.
6) Remember the Night (1940) – I saw this for the first time this holiday season and it’s definitely a film I’ll be returning to in Christmases to come. One of Barbara Stanwyck’s best performances and a fine, sentimental movie all around.
5) 3 Godfathers (1948)…or any other version – I think we covered this already.
4) A Christmas Story (1983) – Before TBS started beating this one to death every Christmas, I can actually remember when I paid money to see it. I don’t mind the excessive repeats (see #1) because it’s still one of the best “what-it-means-to-be-a-child-at-Christmas” films…and the sequence where Darren McGavin pantomimes putting the BB’s in the gun along with Peter Billingsley just melts my heart every time.
3) Scrooge (1951) – This is my favorite version of the Dickens story, if only because I’ve always considered Alastair Sim to be the epitome of Ebenezer Scrooge. AMC ran this one over the holidays, and I didn’t watch it once—I think I may have to get the definitive VCI version to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
2) Miracle on 34th Street (1947) – I covered this movie earlier back in November, so go here to avoid any redundancy.
1) It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – Don’t think I haven’t been reading what you naysayers have been gossiping about out there on the Internets. I don’t care if you’re sick of it; I still consider it the best Christmas movie of all.